Rethinking food banks

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Food banks are such a part of modern life, it seems almost sinful to suggest, as authors Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis do in The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement (Random House, 2013), that they don't really work.

Not to say disrespectful of the thousands of dedicated volunteers, generous donors and underpaid staffers who daily battle hunger in this way.

But they aren't out to shut down food banks. That would consign thousands of clients, especially inner city women and children, to malnutrition and worse. They just want to reform the system. Being part of it in Toronto for over a decade now, they know what they're talking about.

Despite being a rich country, Canada's per capita use of food banks keeps rising. The recent recession hasn't helped. But the trend was upward long before 2008. And since few people beg food only as a last resort, something needs fixing.

Part of the problem is the stigma of the weekly food hamper. Even today, food bank users endure hurtful comments based on ignorance, indifference and fear. Saul and Curtis, by exposing hunger’s real causes - job loss, family troubles, poor education, bad decisions, health issues, substance abuse and just plain bad luck -hope to change that.

Their solution? Treat clients not as problem people but as partners in the common struggle. Watching The Stop's volunteers burn out from overwork and stress, they decided to broaden the scope to include the whole person, not just the stomach. Sounds like more work. But that's not the way it turned out.

This book, now also in e-book format, recounts their seat-of-the-pants journey. Sample chapter headings give the flavour: No One Wants a Handout, Poverty is Ruthless, All Good Parties End Up in the Kitchen. The blend of narrative, anecdote and dialogue quickly pulls readers into the thick of things.

It wasn't all pleasant. Some days they dealt with angry, weeping or abusive clients. Some days the shelves were full, other times it was touch and go.

As a portrait of real life in a busy food bank it has the ring of truth.

Respect was crucial. That must include food quality. Poor or no, no one wants to feed their family wilted greens or stale bread. (Easier said than done when donors do the choosing.) And industry castoffs laced with sugar, fat and salt are no longer seen as healthful.

The Stop's other message is the power of outreach, of linkups with kindred agencies like churches, newspaper editors, city staff, radio stations, online helpers. Such networking cleared many of The Stop's bottlenecks, solved many problems, opened new opportunities. Not to mention upping donations for upkeep and expansion.

Soon the renovated food bank was offering movie nights and classes in cooking and knitting. As programs multiplied, a satellite garden and a farmers' market were launched. Clients even got free seedlings and green thumb advice.

People came for a food hamper, met new friends and left with a sense of purpose - even hope.

Maybe good food, like clean water, should be a public right? If so, governments are getting a free ride here. Not that they should feed us. Just be more supportive. Thanks to Nick Saul's leadership this may finally be happening. Ottawa has created a new agency, Community Food Centres Canada (www.cfccanada.ca). As president and CEO, Saul's goal is to spread The Stop's innovations nation-wide.

 

 

Gary Saunders is a longtime gardener and occasional Truro Daily News contributor living in Clifton, N.S.

 

Organizations: The Stop, Community Food Centres Canada, Truro Daily News

Geographic location: Toronto, Canada, Ottawa Clifton

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